Mahathir Mohamad returns to power as Malaysia’s prime minister: A look at the 92-year-old’s political career

Mahathir Mohamad reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya
Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1C9D9EE170

At the age of 92, Mahathir Mohamad will become the oldest elected leader in the world following a stunning victory in Malaysia’s general election, where an alliance of Opposition parties spearheaded by the veteran strongman claimed majority, setting Mohamad on course for a return to the Prime Minister’s Office he occupied for 22 years.Official results showed that Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) won 113 of Parliament’s 222 seats, clinching the simple majority required to rule. Najib Razak’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) had 79.

Mahathir told a news conference he expected to be sworn in as prime minister later on Thursday.

Few expected Mahathir to prevail against a coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian country since Independence from Britain six decades ago, and has long relied on the support of the country’s ethnic-Malay majority.

However, he joined hands with his one-time protege, the jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim, and together their alliance exploited public disenchantment over the cost of living and a multi-billion-dollar scandal that has dogged Najib since 2015.

Mahathir’s victory was surreal for his family. “It seemed so difficult. Impossible. I didn’t dare think even though I was out there and I saw the crowds,” said his daughter Marina Mahathir. “He is a veteran, he knows how to do this.”

Who is Mahathir Mohamad?

A former doctor who entered politics in 1964, Mahathir governed Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years from 1981 to 2003, with accusations of rights abuses overshadowing a period that also saw the country transform from a sleepy Southeast Asian backwater to a relatively affluent country.

At the young age of 21, Mahathir joined United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), BBC News reported. He ran a medical practice for seven years in his home state of Kedah before his appointment as a member of Parliament in 1964. The UMNO was a founding member of the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The BBC News report further added that in 1969, Mahathir lost his seat. He also wrote an open letter criticising then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, which led to his expulsion from the party.

Later, Mahathir penned a controversial book titled The Malay Dilemma, in which he asserted that the Malay population in the country had been marginalised. However, he also reprimanded them for apathetically accepting a second-class status.

Following the release of the book, Mahathir was welcomed back into the party. In 1974, he was re-elected to Parliament and appointed minister of education.

Four years later, Mahathir took on the role of UMNO’s deputy leader, and in 1981, he became prime minister. He is remembered fondly by some as a champion of the country’s Muslim Malay majority and the father of modern Malaysia, credited with policies that helped the economy blossom. Mahathir’s vision to be a global player inspired the development of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers.

But he was also criticised for disregarding human rights, undermining the judiciary, jailing political opponents and pushing policies that exacerbated racial divisions in the multi-ethnic country.

Frosty relationship with Australia

According to a report, Mahathir shared a frosty relationship with Australia during his time as prime minister over his belief that Australia did not belong in Asia.

In 1981, his first year as prime minister, Mahathir refused to attend the Commonwealth summit Australia hosted in Melbourne. In 1993, he declined to participate in the inaugural Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and pressed for Australia’s exclusion. This led then Australian prime minister Paul Keating to label him a “recalcitrant”.

The bilateral relationship between the two countries did not improve during the John Howard era either, with Mahathir asserting that the then Australian prime minister did not belong at the first East Asia summit, as Australia’s views would only reflect those of the US.

In 2003, his final year as prime minister, Mahathir delivered a controversial speech at an Islamic summit, in which he discussed the Jewish domination of the world.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Mahathir as saying, “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategise and then to counterattack. We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But, today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”

His speech drew widespread criticism from Australia, the US, Western Europe and Israel.

Life as a retired prime minister

Mahathir maintained a vocal presence in the political arena even after he retired as prime minister. He publicly criticised his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. According to The New York Times, Mahathir quit the UMNO in 2008, a move many believed was a tactic aimed at forcing the resignation of his handpicked successor Badawi. He rejoined the party after Badawi stepped down the following year.

BBC News reported that Badawi’s resignation paved the way for Najib’s rise to power. However, as allegations of corruption against Najib emerged, he lost Mahathir’s support.

Saying he was “embarrassed” by the UMNO’s involvement in efforts to shield Najib from the corruption allegations, Mahathir left the organisation once again in 2016, The New York Times report added. “I want to leave UMNO because it is no longer UMNO,” he said. “It is a party dedicated to protecting Najib. I can’t be a member of such a party.”

Return to frontline politics

Mahathir’s return to frontline politics started when he fell out with his one-time protege Najib over allegations that huge sums were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

During a vicious election campaign, Mahathir energetically toured the country, attacking Najib over his mismanagement of the economy and the 1MDB financial scandal. “The biggest mistake that I made in my life is choosing Najib,” he said in one broadside. “I want to fix this mistake.”

Renewed friendship with Anwar Ibrahim

In a volte-face that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Mahathir teamed up with parties that he suppressed while in power to take on the party he once led. Mahathir also buried the hatchet with his fiercest critic and former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Malaysia’s political landscape was shaped for nearly two decades by a bitter feud between Anwar and Mahathir. Anwar was once a protege of the veteran prime minister, Mahathir, and the rising star of Malaysian politics, but they fell out in the late 1990s.

Soon afterwards, Anwar was jailed for the first time on charges of sodomy and graft, after being sacked as the deputy prime minister. He denied the charges, dismissing them as politically motivated.

He was convicted and jailed in 2013, when Najib was prime minister, for another sodomy charge, which he and his supporters described as a politically-motivated attempt to end his career.

But after their years of animosity, opposition to Najib drew Anwar and Mahathir back together. Last year, Anwar endorsed a political compact spearheaded by Mahathir to fight Najib.

Mahathir has promised to seek a royal pardon for Anwar if they win the election, and once Anwar is free, to step aside and let him become prime minister.

With inputs from agencies


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